Sunday, June 02, 2024

The shock of the old - Landscape designer Fernando Wong: I always start with a tree


The shock of the old - The appetite for risk often increases with age

Now that the world agrees with me about children, birth rates are low. This means too few workers for too many pensioners. To keep the state solvent, old people will have to remain productive a bit longer. Expect, therefore, ever more eulogies from politicians and bosses about the advantages of age in the workplace. Prudence, caution, restraint. The moderating hand. All will be cited.

       Marg and Gough in the cold backyard 
And all will miss the point. The most dramatic mental change that comes with age is a loss of interest in what others think. And that allows for more, not less, risk-taking.
This weekend, Carlo Ancelotti, 64, grandfather, stands to win his fifth Champions League title as a coach. Even if Real Madrid lose, his late-career success stands out in an ever-younger profession. (The coach of the German national team is 36.) What explains the resurgence of a man who was sputtering out at Everton in 2021?
Over the past decade or so, football became regimented. A modern coach micromanages the passing sequences, the distances between teammates, the number of seconds a “press” goes on for. Even a casual watcher of the sport might have noticed the extinction of the Number 10, the glamour role, in which a team’s most gifted individual is licensed to roam and improvise. In place of Zidane and Özil: “machine football”.
Ancelotti held out against this super-engineered version of the game. And so the phone stopped ringing. His low-intervention style was seen as derelict in both senses of that word: antiquated andnegligent. He recognised two kinds of coach, “those who do nothing and those who do a lot of damage”. He had about him the air of a general from the musket era bemoaning mechanised warfare as unchivalrous.
And now look. I don’t know if another Champions League title with this loose and expressive Madrid team will bring, in some kind of Hegelian antithesis, a turn in the tide against over-coaching. But I do suggest that a younger man would have been much likelier to cave in to fashion. The value of Ancelotti’s age isn’t prudence, then. It is almost the opposite: a defiance of convention, born of being long past caring about one’s reputation. Some of that insouciance was innate, no doubt. But it would have grown, not waned, with time.
Now let us up the stakes, and up the age-bracket too. With his tariffs and subsidies, Joe Biden, 81, building on the work of Donald Trump, 77, has changed the world. (For the worse, I think.) Looking back, what these men have done to a once invincible-seeming liberal order could have happened much earlier. America’s pro-trade consensus was paper-thin to begin with. The 2008 financial crash then enhanced the prestige of the state. The speed with which protectionism has become the new common sense in Washington suggests the two men were pushing at an open door.
Someone had to push it, though. To go against a ruling idea requires a certain indifference to social pressure. Sometimes, in old people, it manifests as rudeness. But it has a constructive upside in this appetite for heresy. I doubt Marco Rubio and other prime-age leaders who cheer on the new protectionism would ever have initiated the policy change.
It is hard to know the active ingredient that makes people carefree with age. It might be that near-term unpopularity seems trivial next to death. It might be asset ownership. (The Ancelotti household budget could withstand a lack of job offers.) Either way, the equation of youth with risk-taking, and age with conformism, needs adjustment. If it held true, all hipster cafés wouldn’t look the same.
There is an exhibition at the British Museum now on Michelangelo’s last decades. The drawings show the artist in furious argument with himself. Here he changes the head of a figure beside the crucified Jesus. There he has several goes at an airborne angel on the one page. It is like looking at the scribbled marginalia of Shakespeare. 
Well, we are going to need late-life restlessness from more and more citizens. Reducing their potential contribution to that of temperance and caution isn’t just a cliché. It ignores a world that is being turned upside down by those who aren’t long for it.
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Landscape designer Fernando Wong: I always start with a tree 

An architect by training, he creates outdoor ‘rooms’ on tropical estates in Florida and the Bahamas 

In her preface to landscape designer Fernando Wong’s first book, The Young Man and the Tree, Martha Stewart recounts their first meeting on the TV show Clipped. It wasn’t about hairdressing. Both had been brought on as judges to “decide the fates of several topiary artists” in a shrub-shaping competition. She and Wong hit it off: “We spoke the same language,” she writes. “Serious gardener tongue, Fernando with a Spanish accent and I with my New Jersey/New York college-girl intonations.”
Having Stewart, the US queen of domestic arts, endorse Wong’s “fanciful and classical” designs only adds to a series of accolades for the Panama-born designer. He has made a reputation in Florida and the Bahamas with controlled and elegant gardens, including for the Four Seasons Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, the Firestone estate on Lake Worth, designed by architect John Volk, and Providence House, a pink beach house in the Bahamas.  
These year-round gardens, in tropical rainforest and subtropical climates, are designed to cater for heavy rain and hurricanes as well as for intense and humid summer heat and milder, drier winters.
man stands beside a table laden with fruit in a garden
Fernando Wong: the right tree can be a ‘beautiful sculpture’
Wong finds great joy in plants: incorporating palms, hibiscus ficus hedges, drought-resistant zoysia grass lawns, with jasmine and bougainvillea framing doors and climbing walls. “I love to do green gardens — tone-on-tone green gardens — because you settle down and have a tea and see the sunlight reflecting back at you these beautiful shades of chartreuse, olive, emerald,” says Wong. “If, like me, you’re an early riser, you’ll notice how the dew on the grass shimmers at you.”
He is increasingly using native species, better able to cope with the local climate and exposed coastal locations. Then, he says, “the success of the project is more guaranteed”.
But he always starts with trees, whether duranta or banyan trees, retaining or transplanting existing specimens where possible: the right one can be a “beautiful sculpture”, he says, or a “wonderful focal point”, as well as benefiting insects. At the Firestone estate, pride of place is an existing kapok tree, brought there from the Bahamas in the 1800s. For one Miami property he worked with the architect to position a new French-style house so that as many oak trees as possible would be preserved. The trees were arranged to flank the driveway, framing views of the house and the water. 
Wong’s designs incorporate rooms, or “experiences”, in which clients can swim, cook, relax, entertain and work in outdoor offices, “providing shelter not only from the sun but also sometimes from the rain. It’s about climate control,” he says. These designs, which reflect Wong’s architectural training with their adherence to classical rules of proportion, scale and layering of plantings, are a seamless, outdoor extension of the house. 
The hard landscaping is a delight, featuring round pools, statues, formal fountains and, for one 1986 Regency-style Palm Beach house, a cross-hatched driveway where grass grows between its Greek key pattern border. For a Biscayne Bay property, he painted the house pink, adding coral-coloured stone walkways and Italian-style railings.  
Wong’s holistic approach is evident in Providence House, his first project in the Bahamas, with a private beach on Clifton Bay. Buttonwood trees, coconut palms and sea grape trees were added along with native dune plants on the waterfront, while Wong worked with the architect to add a pool house and glass-walled breakfast room. But, ultimately, for him, the landscape is the real star: “With that view, how can you compete?” he says.